Reel War

Paul Richardson, Landmark's president, is optimistic about the Inwood's future and realistic about the Angelika's impact on the local art-house scene.

Even barren and buried beneath a construction crew's detritus, the Angelika Film Center & Café--a long-standing promise on the brink of becoming a reality in the middle of Mockingbird Station--is a remarkable building. For now, one can only imagine what it will look like when its café is serving food and coffee, when its soft leather couches fill the downstairs lounge, when its upstairs concession stand is doling out popcorn and gourmet candies, when its hallways are packed with patrons. It's still but a shell, really, a lot of blanks waiting to be filled in. Only the eight theaters are nearly finished out: Their blue stadium seats and enormous, curved screens await some imported delicacy, some independent gem to illuminate the dark.

That, promise Angelika officials, will happen at the end of this month, when the theater opens its doors to local film festivals and other area organizations hosting special screenings--test runs, in other words, for the local cinerati. Come August 3, the theater will make its formal debut to Dallasites with seven art-house (or, at least, in the same highfalutin neighborhood) releases. Among them will be the critically acclaimed 2000 release George Washington by Richardson-raised writer-director David Gordon Green, and Bully, the latest from Kids director Larry Clark and a movie based on a true-crime book by Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze. When it finally does open its doors, Dallas will be home to more than a dozen art-house movie screens: eight at the Angelika, three at the Inwood Theatre and four more at the Regent Highland Park--the latter of which mixes in traditional Hollywood fare on a screen or two.

For Angelika officials, the grand opening is long overdue. The theater was scheduled to open--amid a 10-acre, $100 million assortment of restaurants and retailers, office buildings and lofts--in late June or early July, in time for the long and profitable holiday weekend. But construction problems slowed progress. Indeed, even now the building looks a long way from completion. At 1:30 on this early July afternoon, the concession stand sits in bits and pieces begging for assembly, but there are no workers in sight. Ellen Cotter, Angelika's vice president of business affairs and the woman charged with overseeing the theater's completion, isn't terribly pleased.

"After we get done here," she says through a thin smile, "I have a phone call to make." Later, though, Cotter insists, "You'd be amazed at how much work can get done at crunch time." She all but guarantees the theater will open on schedule.

For local filmgoers, especially those who watch the Independent Film Channel more often than TNT, the Angelika is a godsend, a safe haven in the middle of so many multiplexes devoted to multimillion-dollar major-studio silt. Finally, they will be able to see in theaters movies that they've only been able to watch on video; Chopper, a violent, absurdist portrayal of an Aussie thug's desire to go straight, makes its Dallas debut at the Angelika long after it's been available at Premiere Video just across Mockingbird. And its existence means that no longer will art-house audiences have to wait for the Inwood to milk the last cent out of its moneymakers before bringing in new releases that long ago played New York and Los Angeles.

"There's no doubt that Dallas is underscreened," says Paul Richardson, president of Landmark Theaters, which operates the Inwood. "It has been for several years in terms of art product, so for Dallasites this is going to be great. They're going to have a wide array of choices, and from my point of view, it's great for all concerned, because interest in film builds interest in film."

Cotter will later say almost the exact same thing: "Hopefully, we'll expand the market for art films here. Hopefully, we'll be able to build an audience that wasn't there before."

Right now, the first shots in this battle of art-house theaters are soft ones. Richardson praises the Angelika, Cotter says only nice things about Richardson, and everyone's playing nice with the Regent, which is owned by Dallas-based Regent Entertainment Corp. It's a love story for now. Soon enough, though, it will become the business world's equivalent of a thriller, which is to say: Can three art-house theaters survive in the same town where Howard Stern's Private Parts made more money per screen than in any other city in the country?

The question is certainly not a new one here: In 1988, the Dallas Times Herald posited that "the opening of the new AMC Highland Park Village movie complex cannot make life any easier for the Inwood Theatre." A year later, when the UA Cine went art-house with sex, lies and videotape, The Dallas Morning News wondered, "Will everyone live happily ever after?" Thirteen years later, the Cine is gone, AMC's out of Highland Park, and the Inwood remains the city's leading art-house theater. For now.  

Richardson was in town a few weeks ago to visit the troops, offer a pep talk and figure out how to improve the Inwood's moldering facilities now that the once-troubled chain is out of bankruptcy. (In May, Dallas-based Silver Cinemas sold its stake in Landmark to Los Angeles-based Oaktree Capital Management L.L.C. for $40 million.) If nothing else, Landmark's exodus from financial straits came at a good time: In addition to completing theaters in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., the chain will spend some money updating its existing houses, and the Inwood is in need of an overhaul, which the Inwood hasn't had since Landmark poured $150,000 into it in 1995.

The Inwood's reputation will help only so much when combating the sleek, shiny Angelika. In fact, Richardson predicts the Angelika's opening will siphon off about 20 percent of the Inwood's business at the beginning, if only because it's a novelty and because it has almost three times the screens.

"The marketplace is also so confused because of the Regent, so Dallas will go from soup to nuts," Richardson says. "It's going to go from being dramatically underscreened for art to being dramatically overscreened for art. It will settle somewhere in the middle, and it will be interesting to see how it goes. I like to dominate the market, but we're clearly not going to."

At stake are not just audiences but the product that will bring them in or send them to a competitor down the street. Will the Inwood, with its long history in Dallas, be able to get its pick of the art-house litter, or will the Angelika muscle in and leave the Inwood holding lesser films likely to draw smaller crowds? Richardson insists the Inwood will "have our pick of the A product" and that the Angelika and Regent will have to "juggle" whatever's left.

Cotter is aghast at the suggestion that the Inwood will get dibs on anticipated films. She insists film distributors are excited about the location and ready to open the floodgates and let indie product pour into the Angelika. But in Houston, where the two chains are duking it out, Cotter will admit that one reason the Angelika there has been forced to offer mainstream fare to boost box office is because Landmark "has done a great job of keeping the films away from us."

"It's up to the distributor," she says. "We'll just see what happens. I'm not sure exactly how it will work, but there will be certain films we'll both want, obviously, and we'll see who gets it."

And so the war begins, even if it's still a civil one.

But according to Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., which provides box-office data to the world's largest publications, it's not unusual for film distributors to give preferential treatment to their largest and oldest clients. And Landmark, with its 52 theaters and 166 screens across the country, is considerably larger than Angelika, which will now have three theaters and 22 screens.

"This varies by company and territory and situation," Dergarabedian says, "but if someone is more established in a certain area, they do get first dibs." Still, in most cases, distributors deal on a city-by-city basis. Simply put, they'll stock the theaters that make them the most money.

Cotter is doing her part to get in good with the local film community. She's already met with Deep Ellum Film Festival director Michael Cain, Dallas Video Festival founder and 3-Star Cinema artistic director Bart Weiss and other local film-fest honchos about sponsoring ongoing film series aimed at specialty audiences. She's working the room like a new kid out to make friends, hiring community- and media-relations personnel as part of an outreach program--as in, reach out and grab everyone in line at the Inwood. As far as local arts groups are concerned, the Angelika's a blessing.

"The theater itself is going to be destination, like the Ballpark in Arlington for moviegoers," Weiss says. "They're really going out there meeting with folks, and they're doing it right."

But what will happen once the novelty wears off? The Angelika has yet to truly succeed outside of New York City, where it's but one of several art houses. Buffalo, New York, was optimistic about its Angelika, too, in July 1999, when the chain opened an upscale eight-screen, 1,600-seat multiplex in that city's downtown. The theater attracted some 20,000 patrons its first three weeks, but by October 1999, the Buffalo News began reporting that the Angelika was having financial trouble and that theater managers were meeting with arts groups and civic and business leaders to find ways to galvanize a dwindling audience. It was to no avail, and less than a year after the theater opened, the Angelika shuffled out of Buffalo. A locally owned chain finally took control of the theater, which is still in operation.  

The Houston location, which opened in January 1998, has proven more successful--but it's hardly an art-house-only theater. Indeed, the Houston theater has played host this summer to the likes of Shrek, Pearl Harbor and A.I. Cotter insists that's because the location, in the heart of downtown, simply isn't conducive to a strict diet of art-house fare.

She can't promise that the Dallas location won't give into blockbusters, though she says with eight screens, it's likely the Angelika would screen films such as Traffic or the Coen Brothers' forthcoming The Man Who Wasn't There--highbrow Hollywood fare with wide distribution. Cotter can only hope it won't be necessary to open the theater to broader mainstream fare, even though studios and distributors might push for it given the high-profile location.

"I hope that won't happen, because that's not the intention," she says. "The art guys are very excited about this. Houston was a tough one. That was our first one out of the box, and I really wish Dallas had been the first one out of the box."

And so, finally, Angelika gets its chance in Dallas. And, yes, the film community anxiously awaits its savior, and, yes, everyone insists this is a no-lose scenario--at least for local audiences in search of more exotic fare. It's the feel-good movie-theater war of the year: Angelika versus Landmark versus Regent, with everyone a winner! But there's still commerce beneath the art-house façade, and in the end, says Richardson, no one's likely to get very rich peddling art-house movies, with budgets the size of Pearl Harbor's catering bill.

"In Houston, we have a war going on between us and Angelika," he says. Dallas could become the same thing."

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